The annual human rights report issued March 11 by Secretary Clinton does a wonderful job of describing the state of respect for human rights in every part of the world. It can be pretty depressing reading, however. As a report of the problems that occurred during the past year, it does not convey a sense of how much things have changed over a longer span. So it is worth looking back at what the human rights situation in a given region was like in the not too distant past to get a sense of whether this year's snapshot represents an improvement or retrogression in the critical area of human freedom.
When I joined the Department of State in the 1970s, I was assigned to the Inter-American Affairs section of the Legal Adviser's Office. At that time, you could count on one hand the number of elected governments in Latin America. Military regimes of the right and the left were the order of the day, and torture, disappearance, extrajudicial killings and other major abuses were unfortunately commonplace. Many of the then old timers would tell us that this was the way things had to be. “These people,” they would say, “are not ready for democracy. They need a strong hand to keep them in line. It is the culture of the region and you need to understand it. It is not a question of whether we like it or not. It is the way they are and we need to work with them.”
I soon came to conclude that the only thing true about this kind of statement was the part about our need to work with “them.” But who was the right “them” to work with? As we learned, in every country in the region there were brave individuals struggling to achieve respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms even as those rights were under assault from repressive regimes and equally brutal insurgent groups. There were journalists and publishers who dared to tell the truth even when faced with repression and sometimes murder. There were democratic political party leaders who demanded the entire range of freedoms that are essential to free elections even when this resulted in their being jailed. Those early human rights defenders were the “them” we needed to respect and support if we were to see a stable, prosperous continent.
What a difference the intervening years have made. Today, every country in the Western Hemisphere, save one, has a government that is the product of competitive elections. Torture is the exception, not the rule, and government organized disappearances and extrajudicial killings are rare. True there is still a long way to go. As this year's report makes clear, in many countries in the region, large segments of the population still do not participate meaningfully in their own governance. In others, elected officials have used their positions to try to restrict or eliminate the institutions of free society that keep their ambitions in check. In yet others, those who came to power in democratic elections have used manipulation and outright fraud to seek to perpetuate themselves in power. And in one, the same individuals have remained in power for over half a century through brutal repression. But serious as these problems are, the region has demonstrated that it has the capacity to overcome them. In no country do these violations of human rights go unchallenged; in every country those who are determined to press for respect of fundamental freedoms know that they have a friend and ally in the United States.
When I hear some commentators look at the situation in other parts of the world where extreme human rights violations still occur and say “they are not ready for democracy, they need a strong hand,” my reaction is to say “yes, just like Latin America was not ready.” The fact is that there are human rights defenders, independent journalists and democrats fighting in every country of the world to bring about positive change. Like their counterparts in Latin America, they too should know that they have friends in the United States.